Lester Brown: 'We shouldn't count on Copenhagen to save us'

Lester Brown has just launched a new book 'Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization'
Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute and the WorldWatch Institute, on his fears for Copenhagen, genetically modified food and the failure of the media

Matilda Lee: In your book, you argue that we'll have to reach a tipping point on climate change in order to jump start dramatic action. What form will this tipping point take and how far away are we?

Lester Brown: Tipping points are difficult to anticipate and to define. They are almost as much intuitive as scientifically empirical. We could figure out some trends in behaviour that would help us - but we don't have a lot of experience in these things.

My own sense is that in the US we are moving towards a tipping point on climate and energy issues, driven by a lot of smaller events.

Americans are in the process of rethinking personal transportation. This year the number of automobiles will drop by 4 million - 14 million scrapped and 10 million new sales - a market shrinkage. There are tougher fuel economy standards and a shrinking fleet - so a two-dimensional squeeze.

Also, over the past couple years, the US has seen the development of a powerful grassroots movement opposing new coal fired power plants. It has created a de facto moratorium on new coal-fired plants. I doubt that anyone is ever going to get a new license for a coal fired power plant. There are now 22 slated for closing, and many more next year.

Just looking at what has happened in the last 9 months is important. In February, just after President Obama took office, he announced new automotive fuel standards (42 mpg for cars and 25 mpg for pickups and SUVs) and instructed the Department of Energy to get cracking in translating a backlog of legislation on energy efficiency into regulatory standards (e.g. raising the efficiency of household appliances, legislation which for years under the Bush administration wasn't implemented).

The stimulus package and other pieces of legislation are making renewable energy technologies look more attractive. One hundred and two new wind farms came on last year, totalling 8,000 watts of energy - or 8 coal-fired plants.

We've reduced carbon emissions in the US 9 per cent in the last two years - the larger part of that is because of the recession, but a substantial part is energy efficiency and a shift to renewables.

ML: What are you expecting from the Copenhagen negotiations?

LB: What I find interesting is that I don't think our delegation, mostly diplomatic types, realise what is happening in the States yet. The thinking is that the reduction in carbon emissions is from the recession, but I think it is more than that.

I don't think we'll see anything bold coming out of Copenhagen. I think we should go to Copenhagen with a bold proposal and push really hard but I don't think we should count on it to save civilisation.

ML: Which is a better way to put a price on carbon: through taxes or cap-and-trade?

LB: If you did a polling of economists, my guess would be that 95 per cent would say tax restructuring is the way to go. It is transparent, and can be phased in. Business wants a cap-and-trade situation because it gives them a lot of ways of gaming the system. However, some corporations are beginning to worry about cap-and-trade because of the uncertainty of future carbon prices. ExxonMobil, the biggest oil company in the world, has defected into the carbon tax camp.

ML: Where have you seen successful examples of shifting taxes?

LB: There are a number of small examples in Western Europe. The Dutch were among the first, around 20 years ago, putting a tax on pollutants discharged by industry and it was spectacularly successful. It was the same principle as a carbon tax.

Sweden has had six years of tax restructuring - lowering income tax and raising carbon tax. It has had quite an effect on their economy. Germany did it for a 4-year period during Schroeders's coalition with the Greens. It had a positive development - lowering carbon emissions, creating jobs, accelerating the development of wind and solar industries.

ML: Do you think there should be an automatic link between the revenue from green taxes and how they are spent?

LB: Not necessarily - if you can get it, it's good. But on working terms, in tax restructuring you get the market to tell the truth about the costs of burning fossil fuels. If we can do that, everything else will fall into place.

ML: What is your view on GM as a solution to food insecurity?

LB: I'm not necessarily opposed across the board to genetically modified crops. I think we need to monitor it carefully and closely. Some of the benefits from GM crops are very substantial.

ML: Such as?

LB: Reducing the use of pesticides on cotton, for example. Traditionally, cotton you had to douse with insecticides. With GMOs you don't. It is a big thing in the health of farmers and farm workers.

In the US, something like 70 per cent of all the products in the supermarket now contain GM - cornstarch, soybean oil, and the soybean meal fed to livestock and poultry is mainly GM. We haven't seen, or at least we haven't recognised any negative effects. It doesn't mean there won't be any, but so far we haven't.

ML: When outlining solutions to impending food security crises, you barely mention organic agriculture. Why?

LB: It is something you and I can afford, but most people in the world can't. Solving the world food problem centres on a billion people that exist on less than $2 a day. Most of these people are practising organic agriculture in the sense that they don't use any [chemical] fertiliser. That's their problem. The soils of Africa are so depleted and in desperate need of nutrients. You can't build nutrients out of nothing.

ML: One of the stated goals of Plan B is to halt population growth at no more than eight billion by 2040. Is the problem really population in numbers or the inequality of consumption of resources?

Both. Some people say the poor don't consume very much and aren't that big of a problem. That was true 30 years ago in China, but not today. You can't assume that poor people want to be poor and always will be poor. You have to take into account what happens when, for example, they move up the food chain.

Most population growth around the world is happening where soils are eroding and water tables are falling. The number of failing states we have in the world today is disturbing - 16 of the top 20 have high rates of population. I don't think that's a coincidence - I think it is associated with the problems of population growth. It will take outside help - in terms of technical assistance, investment and filling the family planning gap itself to halt this growth.

ML: The media, as you point out, are a vital source of information about climate change. Has the media shied away from complicated environmental issues?

LB: What I see is a lack of global reporting - partly a result of the way the news industry is structured. Overseas bureaus report on what's happening in an individual country, but no-one is responsible for global issues.

I've not seen a single newspaper article, for example, on the relationship between the melting of the Greenland ice sheet in the far north Atlantic and the future rice harvest of Asia. But much of Asia's rice is grown on low-lying river deltas - half of Bangladesh's rice land [will be] under water with a one metre rise in sea level. If Greenland goes entirely it is seven metres. With the Mekong delta, producing half the rice of Vietnam, Vietnam being the number two rice exporter, a one metre rise in sea level means a good part of that is gone. We need more people to look at the big picture.

ML: What campaigns would you recommend people to support?

LB: The top two priorities are campaigns that aim to stop the use of coal and coal-fired power plants, and efforts to stabilise the world's population.

Lester Brown's new book Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (WW Norton, 2009) can be downloaded here.

Readers can also purchase the hard copy with a 20 per cent discount on the RRP of £11.99 at www.wwnorton.co.uk.  Enter the code WN151 when prompted. Offer valid until 30 June 2010.

Matilda Lee is the Ecologist's Consumer Affairs Editor

Carbon trading is a dangerous obsession, says report
Carbon trading schemes are allowing speculators to grow rich but are not delivering the emissions cuts promised, says Friends of the Earth
Should the US scrap the Waxman-Markey climate bill?
Neither greens nor fossil-fuel addicts are happy with it, and there could be better ways of forcing the US to reduce its emissions. So should we just scrap the Waxman-Markey climate bill?
Why Copenhagen will be crawling with business lobbyists
Is a business presence at Copenhagen crucial or corrosive? Either way, in a few weeks Denmark is going to be up to its eyes in corporate lobbyists...

More from this author